Leaked Danneels tapes with Catholic sex abuse victim make for sad reading

August 29, 2010

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(Photo: Cardinal Danneels arrives at federal police headquarters in Brussels July 6, 2010 for questions about  allegations of sexual abuse by priests/Stringer)

“Why do you feel so sorry for him and not for me?” — Victim of sexual abuse by a Belgian bishop to Cardinal Godfried Danneels.

The transcripts of two meetings between Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels and a man sexually abused by the disgraced former bishop of Bruges make for sad reading indeed. Two Flemish-language newspapers, De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad, published the texts on Saturday after the victim provided them with his secret recordings of the sessions.  My analysis of the case is here.

danneels 4Apart from the exchanges they reveal, the transcripts are sobering because of the context of the meeting. It took place on April 8, at a time when the series of clerical sexual abuse revelations that began in Ireland the previous year was tearing through Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria like a tornado. Pope Benedict had issued an unprecedented apology to the Irish for the scandals only shortly before. Church leaders all over were vowing to end the Church’s culture of secrecy and put the victims’ welfare above the defence of the clergy. If there was any time to simply say, “OK, he has to go. We have to report this,” this was it.

(Photo: U.S. victims’ group protests at the Vatican, March 25, 2010/Alessandro Bianchi)

It’s a sad end for the career of a leading Catholic cardinal, a grandfatherly man who spent 30 years as primate of the Belgian Church and stepped down last January amid wide popular support (except from conservatives who denounced him as too liberal).

There’s also an almost comic side to this story. When Belgian police swooped down on Church offices and Danneels’s apartment in late June to seize files and computers for abuse records, they also searched two tombs of deceased archbishops in the Mechelen cathedral crypt because someone suggested the cardinal had hidden some  incriminating documents down there. They found nothing but the previous primates’ remains. Little did they know a real bombshell was elsewhere, on the tape the bishop’s victim had made.

danneels 5In the published transcripts of that meeting,  the unnamed victim, now 42, told Danneels he could no longer keep quiet about how his uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, sexually abused him between the ages of 5 and 18. He says Vangheluwe could not remain in office and the case must be reported to the Church hierarchy, but he doesn’t know how to do this.

(Photo: Police outside the office of the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels during raid there, June 24, 2010./Eric Vidal)

“What do you really want?” asks Danneels, cutting the victim off by saying he already knows the story and doesn’t need to hear it again. When the man says “I give you the responsibility, I can’t decide … you should do what you think should be done, because I don’t know how this whole system works.”

“Do you want this to be made public?” the cardinal asks. “I leave that to you,” the victim responds. Then Danneels begins his effort to convince him to keep the lid on the problem: “The bishop will step down next year, so actually it would be better for you to wait.”

“No, I can’t agree that he takes his leave in glory, I can’t do that,” the victim replies.

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The transcript is too long for me to translate all of it here and the only English version I’ve seen is too rough to be recommended. In any case, the exchange only gets worse. At one point, Danneels ducks and weaves trying to fend off the victim’s pleas to inform the Church hierarchy about Vangheluwe’s misdeeds. He says he has no authority over the bishop, only the pope does. When the victim suggests Danneels arrange a meeting with the pope, the cardinal gives the flip reply: “The pope isn’t that easy to reach.” A little later, he says:  “I don’t think you’d do yourself or him a favor by shouting this from the rooftops.”

(Photo: Danneels in Mechelen December 15, 2009/Thierry Roge)

At another point, Danneels suggests the victim admit his guilt and ask for forgiveness. “Who do I have to ask forgiveness from?” the surprised man asks.  When the  cardinal remarks that going public would put the bishop in a quandry, the victim replies: “I’ve been living my whole life in a quandry … I was brought up Catholic. I see the institution is wavering, I read the newspapers and so I think I have a duty to do this. How can I get my children to believe something that has such a background? I can’t. That’s just always shoving it onto the next generation. And everything stays the same. That’s not what the Church is for.”

When Danneels suggests the victim may be trying to blackmail the Church, the man pleads with him to take up this case, saying there has to be someone in the Church who can handle it because he cannot bring himself to expose his uncle on his own. “We were forced to get married by him, our children were baptised by him, how can I explain this to them?” he asked. “Yesterday I said to my oldest son, look, this is what happened to me. They must know what has happened.”

vangheluweThe exchange goes on with Danneels repeatedly arguing he has no power to do anything and that the whole story would come out if Vangheluwe were forced to resign. That’s when the victim asked: “Why do you feel so sorry for him and not for me? … You’re always trying to defend him. I thought I was going to get some support, but I have to sit here and defend myself against things I can’t do anything about.”

(Photo: Bishop Vangheluwe, November 7, 2006/Edwin Fontaine)

A second tape recorded the subsequent meeting Danneels held with Vangheluwe, the victim and a relative of the victim. In it, the bishop admits his guilt, begs for pardon and says speaking about the case felt liberating because it had weighed down on him for over 20 years as he tried to find a solution. “This is unsolvable,” the relative responds. “You’ve torn our family completely apart.”

Defending Danneels, his spokesman Toon Onsaer said the cardinal wasn’t covering anything up and had already spoken publicly about the meeting at an April 24 news conference. But Danneels said at that event that “the aim of the meeting was that I should listen and that we would eventually come to a conclusion that all could support.” He does not seem to do much listening in this exchange. Instead, it sounds like the stonewalling many other victims have reported from their confrontations with churchmen.

It’s not clear what comes next. Danneels has already retired as Brussels archbishop, so he can’t be called on to resign. The statute of limitations on Vangheluwe’s misdeeds has run out. The official inquiry into the scandals looks near collapse following reports that the spectacular raids on Church offices were illegal and evidence gathered from them cannot be used.

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6 comments

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These Vatican guys never stop. Reminds me of the Mafia, the way they’re so loyal to each other, covering up for them. God bless that victim for taping his conversation. They would have called him a liar without it. Nice, noble Catholic leaders that they are. Now, we’ve got to get the rapist behind bars. What’s this trappist monastery thing all about? What makes this rapist think he can call the shots and determine where he spends the rest of his miserable life?? The arrogance of these pretenders is sickening. Time for prison, little uncle.

Posted by reutersnv | Report as abusive

With this, we have to look at the real problem of the Catholic Church. Unlike the rest of the human race, the officials of the Catholic Church are not shocked or even moved about the rape of Catholic children. That’s the reason we have to look askance at the entire church. Of course, every organization will have criminals. But in this church the supposedly normal people are lacking the natural instinct to feel horror or outrage at the butchering of children. That’s why I have to pose the question, is the entire Catholic Church a pedophile ring? The supposedly innocent lay people have not seemed to notice that their leaders are missing the human component of protecting children. Of course, if their leaders have vowed to never have sex with a woman or bear children, and thereby have nothing to do with raising children and have no knowledge about children, and they are now raping children or protecting those who do, is this not a one true holy and apostolic pedophile ring? Don’t get mad at me. Get mad at the supposedly normal people who say they have committed no crime but are incapable of having any love or honor for children.

Posted by estheimer | Report as abusive

Perhaps I`m being synical but why would a straight man decide to become a priest and live a life of chastity? (Especially this day and age in a liberal western society) Perhaps there are some pious priests who truly take up “the life” out of a spiritual calling. However, it`s no secret the clerical life has been and continous to remain an escape for the sexually repressed. How is this a surprise to anyone?

I am less afraid of having my children play with pitbulls than hanging around priests.

Posted by alejandro81 | Report as abusive

I am aware that many people in the UK take a less than benign view of the current pontiff and you might be interested on the take to this visit of a band from Stoke-on-Trent.

Our band is called The Incontinents and we have recorded a single ‘Does He?’ to be tied in with the upcoming papal visit. The song might be somewhat controversial, but it does offer an alternative view of the pontiff and it can be found here: http://www.myspace.com/theincontinentsuk

Posted by Incontinent | Report as abusive

“That’s just always shoving it onto the next generation. And everything stays the same. That’s not what the Church is for.”
That is *exactly* what the church is for.

Posted by alienegg | Report as abusive

What amazes me is that these sorts of prelates still do not clearly take a side against evil. The victim asks a key question: “Why do you feel sorry for him and not for me?” I think the whole RCC should face that question and understand a policy that has been and still continues to be profoundly careless of the victims who have suffered terribly. Church authorities have acted and obviously still continue to act immorally and heartlessly. Apologies will not suffice. Clear and compassionate action is the only way to go.

Posted by jsutton | Report as abusive